Archives For Words and Rabble

Dear John,

On Monday, I had every intention of getting a letter of to you, but you beat me to it. What kept me from writing my dear ol’ friend in Colorado? The City of Charlottesville, that’s what. We got a letter in the mail from one of our street inspectors giving us 10 days to trim back a long row of runaway Rose of Sharons that have been spreading themselves too generously out over our little lane. They were running wild, I’ll admit. And they were causing a problem on our narrow lane, skinny as it is. Even without the forest intruding onto the asphalt, two go karts would have to suck in their tummies to squeeze past each other without scraping paint. Did you know that in England, lots of the little avenues are referred to as a “close”? Like instead of Mulberry St., it’s Mulberry Close? Those Brits say what they mean; everything on those streets is in close, for sure.

Anyway, I had planned to trim the Rose of Sharons in a month or so when legitimate Fall weather hits, as I’m told that then I can prune away without fear of butchering them into oblivion. However, the inspector man said they had to go, butcher or no butcher. He obviously has little concern for our horticultural dilemma. I’d planned for the job to take an hour. Six hours later, I dragged my weary self into the house and called it a day.

You know, though, how Charlottesville has been syphoning off so much of my energy in so many other ways lately. Our dear, broken town has been splayed across the news, and it’s not going away–last night CNN had a link to a livestream of our town’s City Council meeting–can you believe that? In the middle of Hurricanes and DACA breakdown and North Korea shooting nuclear missiles, there sits our town council with a lead-in from Wolf Blitzer. John, I tell you, on August 12th, I experienced the most vile and vicious ways we degrade ourselves and others. I know racism and antisemitism is still very much with us, but I’ve never seen it bare its fangs– so brazen, without any twinge of conscience. And then, later, I stood between two groups of people spewing the most evil, dehumanizing words at one another. I will never forget that. Never. And though I would never want three people to die to be able to get to this point, I am grateful that now our wounds, festering so long, are in the open, that we simply cannot ignore them. I hope that now we can embrace serious national repentance. I hope that we can truly become brothers and sisters, that we can make communities where everyone truly belongs.

You talked about the In-Between. I feel that all the time. I feel it, for instance, in trying to navigate how to live well in a time where we cycle from one crisis to the next, rarely without any moment to catch our breath or think deeply, certainly no time to think clearly. One downside (of many) to the 24-hour news cycle and firehose-style social media is that we are tempted to believe we can have (or should have) our finger and our mind on every issue, every crisis, every worthy concern. But we can’t. Only God can do that. If we think that we have no responsibility to engage the sorrows and injustices of our world, we need God to expand our heart. However, if we think that we are responsible to confront every sorrow and injustice of our world, we need God to chasten our bloated (and destructive) delusions.

Of course, for many of us, our overblown sense of responsibility comes from the shame blasted out from those who like to sound like God, only with a heap of self-righteousness poured on top. A long time ago, I gave up giving someone else that level of authority in my life. I’ve got my hands full trying to follow Jesus’ voice; I can’t tune in to the million-voice siren call on Facebook too.

All this reminds me of Ignatius who often signed off his letters with this inspiring jolt: Go set the world aflame! That’ll get the blood flowing, won’t it? We do need more people striking their match. However, Ignatius also regularly insisted on our need to foster a Holy Indifference. This Holy Indifference was Ignatius’ way of describing an abiding trust in God that keeps us from getting swept away in the emotions and demands of those things (and often good things) that simply take over more energy than they should. It’s not a call to apathy, not by any means. However, it is, as one writer put it,”peaceful acceptance, realistic expectations, and careful consideration.” If we have indifference but no flame, we’ll waste our life. And if we have the flame but no indifference, we’ll just burn, burn til there’s nothing playful or hopeful or curious left in us at all. 

I know saying goodbye to the kids was hard. I wish Miska and I could have walked over to check in on you and Mer after the farewells. I see those days coming toward us over the horizon. I’m going to be a blubbering dad when it’s our turn. But before then, Miska and I are celebrating our 20th. And we’re doing it in style. We’re heading to Ireland on Sunday to do a walking tour of the Kerry Way, just the bags over our shoulder, the mist on our heads, the green clover under our feet. We’ll walk from village to village. I can’t wait. I plan to practice a little Holy Indifference on the trail. 

Your Friend,Winn

I have a friend who is in our country illegally. He’s one of the most honest, hard-working, resourceful men I know. He came here years ago in a desperate attempt to care for his family. Upon arrival, he applied for an IRS ID number so he could pay his taxes — think about that for a second. And my friend pays a fair bit of taxes because he works crazy hard, much harder than many of us who were born here. “He should have immigrated the right way,” we say. Sure, fair enough. But he didn’t. And he didn’t because he was trying to care for his family – what would I be willing to do if I needed to provide for Miska and the boys? And my friend’s been in our community for years now, made a life with us, become a neighbor. He’s the guy who’s helping out others who need a job, making our community a better place.

And yet under the current system (which they say is going to be getting even more difficult), there’s no viable way for him to make his citizenship right that wouldn’t decimate them. Whatever one thinks about the need for immigration reform (and I’m certain we can do better), if our reform doesn’t include compassion (not to mention gratitude, for crying out loud) for people like my friend, then it’s beneath the American ideal I know and love.

And now one of my friend’s daughters is starting another year of school and continues to tear up the soccer pitch. She’s got a foot that can launch a rocket. Most days, she lives in a low-grade anxiety that her dad is going to get pulled over on the way to one of his jobs and be deported. I can’t imagine what it is to live with that constant drip of fear on top of managing the fact that you know lots of people don’t want you here and on top of wading through all the normal school angst of boys and geometry and looking the right way and all the everyday stuff that makes it so hard to be a kid these days. But here she is, and she’s been here most of her life. By any standard that should matter, she’s American. And now, she has to go to bed at night knowing that DACA might be revoked, that even though she was only a child following her parents and even though the good ol’ USA is the only home she knows, we may very well come looking for her to send her packing.

Whatever immigration reform we envision, if it does not have a wide open door and massive amounts of love and compassion for my friend’s rocket-launching daughter who’s trying to wrangle her class schedule and get to soccer practice on time, then it’s beneath the American ideal I know and love. And what’s crazy is this: what I’m asking for used to be, as recent as the Bush years, a moderate position. How did things get so toxic? Senator Graham (R) who’s been working with Senator Durbin (D) on a bipartisan bill (imagine that!) said, “Who are we? What do we believe? The moment of reckoning is coming. When they write the history of these times, I’m going to be with these kids.”

Me too. I’m going to be with these kids.

We’re drowning in words. And this is a crisis because we need good words more than ever. I think that those of us who work with words are a big part of the problem (I am, I know). We need to roll up our sleeves and put in the serious sweat.

Anytime we can cut three words and replace them with 1, do it. Anytime it’s possible to turn a 30 minute sermon or lecture to 15 minutes, then by God make it happen. This is not always possible, and sometimes beautiful, truthful language needs lots of space to breathe. But if we writers or preachers or teachers don’t have the fire-in-the-gut that leads to that magical ingredient: piercing clarity, then perhaps our work is not finished.

Now, we don’t need to be perfectionists about this, and God knows there’s more than a few times for me when a Sunday or a deadline’s rolled around and I just have to go with the best I can do. But let’s make that our dead-level aim: to do our best. And our best, I’m convinced, is almost always going to be less/smaller/quieter than what our first impulse suggests.

I also think we’re drowning in nonsensical, eyes-glazing-over words because some of us just really like our words (a lot) and they somehow signal (or lead to, we hope) validation. So the more words, the more we feed that frenzied quest to be noticed. I get it. I want to be noticed. I want people to give me the thumbs up. I want people to think that what I have to say is worth tuning in for, and I cringe to think of how often I’ve offered sentences that were really just me jumping up and down for attention. But that’s a soul-killing game, let me tell you. And it never pays off. And in that lustful glut, we end us saying all kinds of things that we don’t even really mean or understand, all in our attempt to sound clever or catch the attention of the passing parade. Exhausting. For everyone.

And if you’ll allow me a moment more (am I not heeding my own advice here?), we have piles of superfluous words because some of us are working out our every anxiety on paper for the world to see. I’m all for honest writing (please, give us more), but there’s a difference between writing that’s human/real and writing that’s exhibitionist. The former is a gift to the reader/listener. The latter is selfishness masquerading as courage. And I fear we’ve created an entire industry out of this masquerading bit. If we’re going to claim honesty, then let’s get really honest about this.

At any rate, for those of you who work with words, I’m your brother-in-arms. Thank you for bleeding on the page. And for those of you who read or listen to our words, thank you for keeping us honest. We’re in perilous times, and I’m with Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” And words, I believe, are (at their best) a crucial part of this beauty.


Gaudí commenced construction on the Sagrada Familía, a Basillica in Barcelona, in 1882. They say it’s on target for its expected completion date: 2026. Gaudí died in a trolley accident in 1926 at the age of 73. Believing his work was for God, whenever someone chided him for the ridiculous time horizon, he’d answer: “My client is not in a hurry.”

I don’t know the answers to the many vexing concerns of our moment, but I think a good dose of Gaudí would at least be part of our way forward. We hear the wisdom encouraging us to be attentive to this one present moment (this conversation, this page of this book, this purple Climatis climbing our mailbox, this act of resistance) rather than frantically pressing and swerving toward whatever’s next–and this is absolutely true. However, to truly inhabit attentiveness to the beauty and responsibility of each single moment, we have to also trust the long view, trust the long story. I get the sense that Gaudí was able to enjoy each stone cut, each piece of marble laid, precisely because he knew the future was not his to control, that he was to do his part (and do it well, with real diligence, no shirking) but he envisioned a future that did not ultimately depend upon him. He would draw his blueprints and lay his portion of the edifice, but then other hands would take it from there.

The work before us is larger than us, larger than our lifetime. We have responsibility, but it is a responsibility born and worked out in mercy. We do not strain toward tomorrow. We do our good work today, and then we trust.

Dear John,

It’s Memorial Day. I wish you and the fam could all stroll over to the house this afternoon. We’d fire up the grill, play a little cornhole or maybe take rounds picking off targets with the new air rifle the boys and I bought. For Wyatt’s birthday on Saturday, we stuck his old cellphone up on a box in the yard and shot it to smithereens. The boys love stuff like that…yeah, it’s only the boys who love it, not me at all… Anyway, we’d eat and shoot stuff and sit on the porch and watch the sun go down as the fireflies lit up the yard. We’d give thanks for the life we’ve been given and for those who’ve given their life for this life we’ve been given. We’re going to have a few other friends with us this evening–you’d like them. Anyway, since you and Mer have all the kids home from the far reaches, I know you’ll have a good day over there on Snowwood Drive.

Memorial Day always sneaks up on me, a stealth holiday. But then something about that seems right. A day of memory, a day of gratitude. It seems right to me that it’s quiet. This morning on my run, I listened to a friend narrate via podcast the story of his wife’s Uncle Floyd who piloted a helicopter rescue squad in Vietnam. En route to another downed copter, enemy fire struck Floyd’s craft. They never found his body. Decades later, however, a group of Floyd’s military friends and family returned to the village near the crash site. Discovering the village had no modern medical care, they opened a little clinic in Floyd’s honor. The drama stretched taut, however, when Floyd’s sister met the two men who shot down Floyd’s helicopter. She describes how she experienced no anger, only compassion. The ravages of war had wounded them all. Compelled by her faith, Floyd’s sister felt her heart open wide. She wanted healing not only for herself, but healing also for those who were once named enemies.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we’re ratcheting up this enemy posture, how often now we’re divided along the simplistic storylines of us vs. them. That old storyline (and it’s at times freely wielded by some on the right as well as the left) makes it remarkably (and disturbingly) easy to castigate another beloved human made in God’s image with broad stroke assumptions, almost glibly easy to assault someone’s dignity or paint someone in a corner where they are silenced through a dehumanizing brand of shame.

I’ve participated in a number of civic actions recently. It’s important to stand alongside those who are being silenced or those whose lives bear the weight of unjust histories and unjust actions that are happening now. In some of these moments, however, I leave with the weight of an even greater sadness than I had before. I saw one teenager at a rally (a fellow not part of the mainstream opinion) surrounded by an angry circle, with a ferocious energy that felt like it would swallow the boy whole. I don’t agree with the boy’s point of view at all, but I wanted to go stand by him, to wait with him until the fever died down, to make sure he knew he wasn’t alone, to have a conversation and hear him tell me where’s he’s coming from, what makes him afraid, what gives him hope. I stood nearby until things died down, though I was never able to talk with him. That evening, we were there to speak up for those who are beloved by God. And also there was a boy in the midst of that seething circle who is beloved by God.

I am more convinced than ever that the powers of this world are simply unable to ultimately win these moments. The way of the crucified Jesus, offering sacrificial love with wide open arms toward the entire world (the ones who want this love and the ones who abuse this love) offers a profound critique to the easy inclinations of my own heart and to the simmering rage of the powers that be. There’s right and wrong, thank goodness. However, in the Kingdom of God, there is no us vs. them. There is only us, all of us, in need of mercy. 

Well, sorry if I got preachy there at the end. I wish you were here so we could talk about it in person. But until then, letters will have to do.

 

Your Friend,

Winn

There’s a fair bit of talk these days about being a prophet, about speaking truth to power. We need these bold, arresting voices. We always have. However, the true prophets are not chest-thumpers; they do not merely play one side against the other. True prophets are nearly impossible to label, at least once the labels become a brand, a marker, the way of expressing who’s in and who’s out. True prophets seem to upset everybody, even the ones who claim them as their own. True prophets insist on the dignity of everybody, even the ones least deserving of such protection. The true prophets I’ve encountered exhibit steely courage mixed with an unnerving gentleness. It’s a rare thing indeed.

The Methodist preacher Will Willimon remembers a Sunday evening sitting in his dorm room at Wofford College when a friend burst through his door. “Hey, give me a cigarette,” his friend said, breathless. “I’ve got to tell you about an unbelievable experience.” These two white boys had marched alongside one another during civil rights actions in South Carolina, and that weekend, this fellow in need of a smoke had flown to DC for a rally.

He recounted how when he boarded the plane for the flight back to Greenville, he buckled into his seat and looked across the aisle and his stomach turned a slight somersault when he realized he was seated next to Martin Luther King, Jr. King looked dog-tired, and while the young man tried to muster his courage and wrest some words out of his mouth, King fell asleep. But Willimon’s friend kept watching King, hoping he would wake so he could speak to him.

Finally, after the pilot indicated they’d be landing soon, King stirred. The fellow pounced, immediately leaned over and introduced himself. “Dr. King, what an honor it is to be on this plane with you, and I so admire your work. I’ve tried to be active in the Civil Right movement in South Carolina.” King thanked the man, but Willimon’s friend was not finished. He had a confession to make. “But Dr. King, my family in South Carolina is so racist and segregationist. I’ve tried to talk with them, tried to reason with them. My father and I are not even speaking. I didn’t even go home over Christmas because I didn’t want to have another angry encounter with my father. He is so backward, so racist…”

Dr. King didn’t let the fellow finish. He lunged over the aisle, grabbed his arm with a fierceness and looked him in the eye. “You gotta love your daddy,” King insisted. Then, King sunk back into his seat and closed his eyes until the wheels hit the tarmac.

Willimon’s friend finished the story, and the two of them sat quietly, a smoky haze hanging over them. Then one of them broke the silence: “You know, he really is a prophet.”

The exit out of The Abbey, up to our house

Miska and I recently took a rambling stroll outside our old cottage, these whimsical gardens Mr. Cloud first envisioned in the 30’s, the gardens lovingly tended and expanded by those who’ve called this home in the ensuring decades, the same ground we’re only beginning to know and love and tend to ourselves. We noted how the dogwoods and azaleas are receding, tipping their hat as if bidding adieu to the tulips who’ve exhausted their glory, shooting stars blazing out in a blast of Spring brilliance. On cue, the next players have stepped up to center stage, and one of our favorites for this act in the play is the peonies. Miska had checked the peonies’ tight pods only that morning, waiting for them to open their heart to the world. And there they were, mere hours later, offering their pink and white splendor.

These are the things we only see if we take that rambling stroll, or peer attentively out our back windows. If you want to feel their pleasure with us, you’ll have to park your car and walk through our rickety back gate (one of the reasons we bought this house), maybe even ring our rusty bell to let us know of your arrival. You can’t catch a glimpse of these wonders while motoring past at 35 mph. These beauties are not, as the realtors say, curb appeal. To get to this goodness, you must enter into the quiet and hidden place.

Our gardens are part of Mr. Cloud’s orginal 2 acres. Our next-door neighbors hold the deed to the bulk of the property, but we have the good fortune to be their friends as we continue to treat the property with its orginal spirit: no overbearing fence, no boundary markers. We all enjoy the whole marvelous expanse.

On Saturday, Ben (our next door neighbor) and Dan (our down the street neighbor) and I found ourselves in a hidden nook, tucked into the back corner of the property where an underground spring feeds into a creek maybe 1/3 mile away. However, for years, Joe Pye weed has choked out the water’s movement, turning the bubbling brook into a goopy marsh. Clearing enough of the runaway flora to let the water free, Ben and Dan began construction of a small bridge, then mapped out the contours needed to allow the reclaimed stream vital flow, then began to figure the rocks they’d need, the angles, the way forward. I manned the wheelbarrow, hauling weeds and debris to the compost pile. This is the sort of job suited for a fellow like me when you’re working on such a project with an architect and an engineer.

To find this little brook, you enter an alcove, a secret hideaway, secluded by a dense circle of azaleas and dogwoods and guarded by towering tulips and regal pines. I’ve come to think of this alcove and the adjacent brook as The Abbey. I don’t get to officially christen the spot, of course, as I’m not the one who’s paying the mortgage for this plot of dirt. But in my heart, it is The Abbey. And like the rest of these joys, you have to take time to find them. You have to go looking. I think that’s the way it is for most of the deep joys in our lives.

Last Wednesday, I sat in the North Oval Room of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda. It’s an auspicious place, one of Thomas Jefferson’s pinnacle achievements now marked as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Jefferson modeled the Rotunda after Rome’s Pantheon, explaining how it was to “represent the authority of nature and the power of reason.” One could never accuse Jefferson of underselling expectations.

I took my spot on one lonely end of a massive boardroom table that seemed to stretch all the way to DC. Around the table sat professors I admire and respect, teachers with serious academic pedigrees. In other words, nothing like me. I was there to defend my PhD dissertation. After course work and languages and a grueling year of comprehensive exams, I’ve spent two years writing about Wendell Berry’s marvelous fiction and how God’s grace shows up in the common, everyday fabric: in that rich Kentucky soil, in those rivers and hills, in those sturdy friendships, in their sorrows, in the life they make in that one unique place. My hope was to better understand Berry’s writing, but just as much, my hope was to better understand my own world and how God shows up in the unique places and people of my life.

There I was, sweating bullets, only to realize that right off the bat I’d made two unfortunate blunders. First, we set my defense date for March 15: the Ides of March. Ominous. Worse, just under the wire, I’d scratched out my heartfelt acknowledgments on the very first page of my dissertation and there, in an ill-advised flourish, I misused the word literally. I mean seriously? – literally? The abuse of this word is the bane of most every middle school grammar teacher in the English-speaking world. I didn’t have tons going for me in this context, but at least I’m supposed to be a writer. I’m supposed to understand elementary vocabulary. I felt like I was rolling into the Rotunda on my tricycle.

Thankfully, the defense went well, and I’m now done. It’s a marvelous feeling.

I’ve asked myself numerous times over the past 5 years why exactly I’ve done this. I’m not entirely sure, but at the most basic I did it because I wanted to and because Miska saw something important here as well. I remember the day when Miska, after years of batting around the crazy idea with me, said, “Winn, I think you have to do this.” That was the lynchpin.

Miska’s my best friend, my partner, the one I trust the most. Last Wednesday, on the other end of that long table, Miska sat there, observing, smiling. Every once in a while, I still hear people talk about the “self-made man.” That’s ridiculous.

 

Our house was built in 1937, and before we purchased our cottage last year, we knew the original cedar shake siding, now brittle and moldy-black, would need to be replaced. Along whole swaths, the siding is thin as onion skin and in scattered spots the woodpeckers have rap-a-tap-tapped right through, leaving a series of circles, like it’s half of a tic-tac-toe board waiting for the X’s. I soon learned that cedar siding was one of the most expensive and labor-intensive options, so I went in search of alternatives. We considered clapboard and board and batten — I even took a very short look at several cedar knockoffs (no thanks).

Knowing my dispositional inability to stroke a check without pressing for every conceivable way to cut the numbers, Miska allowed me my necessary time to roam and research. However, she just kept saying, “You know, Winn, cedar is part of this house’s character. It’s what belongs here.” I nodded politely as I showed her numerous Google images of lovely homes with all kinds of lovely siding. She appreciated each option, but repeatedly reminded me that homes, like all beautiful and sturdy things, have their own soul, a character. You have to pay attention to where you are. I heard her, even as I kept searching, kept finagling, kept downloading Google images for her to view.

As you must already know, we’re now replacing our weather-whipped siding with new cedar, culled by our neighbors to the North from their Canadian forest. Several friends who know what they are talking about encouraged us to stain the siding before installing, so Seth and I have set up in the back yard, dipping shingles in 5 gallon buckets of mocha colored oil, brushing and stacking. We haven’t done all the staining, and I won’t be doing any of the installing, but it’s felt good to participate in the restoration of this old place, to know we’re contributing to our home.

Frank, our carpenter extraordinaire, has finished one stretch. And it’s absolutely true. Cedar belongs here. It’s part of the soul of this place. It’s wonderful.

Every home, every person, every street and village, every borough, every family, every marriage and friendship and church, has a unique soul, a unique identity. And we must honor this marvelous particularity. We do great damage when we assume we can stuff everything into one basket, give it a common name, draw broad-stroke conclusions and assign some generic fix or plan for marching efficiently on. We do great damage when we compare one unique person to another unique person. There’s all kinds of beauty in the world; we want to honor each and every one.

Dear John,

Out running this morning, I sighted two big-breasted cardinals, blazing red. I wonder what it would be like to have to live up such a brazen coat of feathers? It’s not like you could ever hide or blend into the crowd. I imagine that sometimes it’s a burden, but also gives them their strut. I think all of us need a little strut.

It’s interesting you mentioned the Carver story – I just bought my first collection of Carver stories. I was surprised to find I had a hard time getting into it, but I’m sure I’ll give it another crack. I love that image of you and your crackly Baptist knees kneeling for the ashes, with Easter burning in your eyes. Whatever else happens to us, whatever sorrows we experience, whatever fears, whatever blow to our hopes or passions, that Easter burning — that hope of life breaking loose — is what keeps our heart thumping and our eyes watchful. Truth is though that every year, come January and February, that fire dwindles. I need to remember the story again. I need to be pulled out of myself. I need God. I guess that’s why we keep showing up, isn’t it? 

You know moments like Ash Wednesday get, for me, at the heart of what it is I think I’m supposed to be doing as a pastor. I stopped going to pastor’s conferences long ago and haven’t read many pastors books in quite a while. Most of the time, running into all that feels like trying to read Swahili. But standing in front of a line of friends, putting my finger on the forehead of a person I love, looking them in the eye, marking them with the cross, reminding us both of our mortality and our need for mercy and assuring us both that God’s love will carry us even through death — that calls something deep out of me. 

Ken’s dad died Saturday night, I’m not sure if you heard yet or not. I felt that one, returning to my own mother’s death. I hate death. I hate the separation. It makes me nervous sometimes when I think of the future we don’t exactly understand. I believe that our future is bound up in God’s love, and most days that’s enough for me. But I’m a man of dust and there are days when I crave more certainty about how this love I have for Miska, for Wyatt and Seth, for my friends, for this splendid world will continue. I want to have more clarity for exactly how none of it’s lost and how it goes on forever. But I find that God rarely considers that brand of certainty a high priority. I wish God would ask me my opinion on such things every once in a while.   

With you, I’m disappointed we haven’t found a home for publishing our letters yet, but I’m glad we keep writing. I’m glad it’s about friendship most of all. And sooner or later, when the time’s right, we’ll fling our stuff into the wide world, especially the other letters, the ones that otherwise won’t see the light of day. Until then we’ll work on getting Jubilee out there. I’m eager for March 22nd. I’m eager to get my hands on your finished volume. I need more Blase poetry in my life. 

 

Your Friend,
Winn